A nominalization is a noun made from a verb or adjective. Like tendency from tend, solution from solve, agreement from agree, abstraction from abstract and nominalization from nominalize.
Professors, generals, businessmen and bureaucrats love them: They make writing seem more objective and important-sounding. But they also make it long-winded, abstract and unclear.
Writer Helen Sword calls them zombie nouns because they “cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings.”
The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.
Nominalizations: proliferation, nominalizations, formation, indication, tendency, pomposity, abstraction.
Writers who overload their sentences with nominalizations tend to sound pompous and abstract.
- Tendency became tend,
- pomposity became pompous,
- abstraction became abstract,
- proliferation became overload,
- discursive formation became sentences,
- indication was thrown out and
- nominalization kept.
- Instead of abstract nouns and weak verbs we now have actors (writers) and actions (overload).
- Sentence length dropped by a third, from 19 to 13.
- The percentage of words of more than two syllables dropped from 42% to 15%.
All things that make writing more readable.
Take Orwell’s example in “Politics and the English Language”:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
Nominalizations: considerations, conclusion, success, failure, activities, tendency, capacity.
The Bible expresses the same thought with just one nominalization (understanding):
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
The telltale signs of zombie noun infestation:
- Weak or passive verbs, especially forms of “to be”.
- Sentences that start with “There is” or “There are”.
- Long words, particularly those ending in -tion, -ment, -ism or -ity.
- Lack of picturable actors and actions.
Some nominalizations are good or necessary:
- If they can be pictured, like consultant (from consult).
- If they make your sentence shorter or clearer.
- If they are what you are talking about, like nominalization in this post.
- If they are important words in the field you are writing about. Business and science love high-flown abstract nouns, so some of their important words are nominalizations, like evolution (from evolve) and globalization (from globalize).
How to get rid of nominalizations:
- Directly use the verbs and adjectives being nominalized. Instead of “They were in disagreement,” say “They disagreed.” Instead of “led to the destruction of” say “destroyed”. Instead of “found a solution” say “solved”.
- Think in terms of actors and actions instead of abstract nouns. An American education teaches you to write impersonally and think in nouns and abstract qualities, using verbs as fasteners. But verbs are the heart of a sentence. Strong verbs can make writing shorter, clearer and more forceful.